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by Desiree J. Hanford
Spending time on Saturdays with Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) switch crews working on tracks near his father's steel warehouse business. Doing homework in his dad's office, then tagging along to visit local industries by train. Riding transcontinental trains to visit relatives in the Midwest or tour colleges.
Andrew Fox had a lot of exposure to the railroad industry while growing up in Berkeley, Calif., which helped motivate him to carve out a railroading career, one that began as a SP rodman in the summers of 1971 and 1972. That career now has spanned nearly 40 years, much of it spent with SP and Anacostia & Pacific Co. Inc. (A&P).
"This is a lifelong interest, literally. It was in my blood very early on," says Fox, 58, who became president of A&P's Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad (CSS) on Sept. 1, 2010, and continues to serve as managing director of the short-line holding company's Pacific Harbor Line Inc. (PHL).
Time spent with switch and train crews, and traveling the country via train helped Fox better understand the overall rail network: where main and branch lines started and stopped, such as those operated by the Missouri Pacific Railroad and Denver Rio Grande Western Railroad, and how the entire network tied together. It was an education he couldn't have received sitting in a classroom or reading a textbook.
"I know where all these places are, and I know what they look like. I had a feel for the kinds of railroads they ran," says Fox. "They've changed in many ways. For much of my professional career, I've been updating that database of rail knowledge as I've traveled."
His thirst for rail knowledge helped Fox mold PHL into a key switching railroad serving major ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif. Considered PHL's "founding father" by his colleagues, Fox was paramount in the short line's planning and development.
In 1995, he served as a consultant to A&P and helped the firm win the ports' bid for a new switching railroad. Fox spent the next two-and-a-half years helping land contracts from the ports, BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad to get PHL launched, which occurred in 1997. He then became the railroad's first president, a post he held until last year.
Now, PHL employs more than 140 (up from 34 in 1988) and handles about 2 million containers annually.
In addition, Fox helped the short line become the first railroad to operate a fleet of "clean diesel" locomotives that meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Tier II and III emission standards. His lead role in developing a public/private partnership to acquire the 16 locomotives made PHL the nation's "most environmentally friendly switching railroad," according to the ports.
Although his inquisitive childhood provided Fox a solid base of rail knowledge to fall back on while developing PHL, the wisdom he continued to develop in the rail industry after high school helped shape his approach to managing and growing a short line.
In the 1970s, he spent seven years as a SP brakeman/conductor, which provided him opportunities to talk with fellow workers, and learn about their
responsibilities and concerns.
Fox also followed the traditional education route. He graduated from Northwestern University with a civil engineering degree in 1975, and a master's degree in business administration in 1978. Located just north of Chicago, the university is near a major railroad hub, as well as rail and rail-car manufacturers.
"The engineering degree was useful in a practical way, but being in Chicago fed that database," says Fox. "For someone interested in the business, there was no better place to observe it than Chicago."
And there was no better first mentor than his late father, Charlie Fox. During Andrew Fox's first SP job after high school, his dad provided him a list of business dos and don'ts — a list Andrew still possesses. Charlie Fox had a strong sense of business ethics that he passed along to his son, as well as this advice: follow through on commitments and develop long-standing relationships with customers and suppliers. He also said to treat customers and employees well and they, in turn, would help you achieve success, says Andrew Fox.
"All the bits of advice are still valid," he says.
Fox strived to take all the advice to heart while holding various SP operating, finance and executive posts, including assistant to the VP of operations, and developing PHL. So much so, he developed "exceptional business integrity," as well as a broad and balanced knowledge of the rail industry, said Conrail President and Chief Operating Officer Ronald Batory in an e-mail.
"He brought more strategic planning capability to Anacostia & Pacific, which has ultimately not only benefitted their growth, but also favorably contributed in part to the overall short-line industry performance," said Batory, who has known Fox since SP acquired a St. Louis-to-Chicago line more than 20 years ago.
In turn, some of Batory's management skills rubbed off on Fox.
"I liked the way he thought and managed people, and his enthusiasm for people," says Fox of Batory. "I saw a lot of myself in Ron."
What he derived from his father and Batory later helped Fox mentor M.D. "Mike" Stolzman, who succeeded him as PHL president last year. Stolzman first met Fox in March 2005 after joining PHL as general superintendent.
"Andrew has established great working relationships with people," says Stolzman, adding that Fox has "sound" leadership skills and can develop "innovative" solutions to chronic problems.
Fox has a solid understanding of railroading, and he helped explain the industry's business side, such as risk management and contracts' legal
nuances, says Stolzman.
"Andrew's very detail-oriented and disciplined," he says. "He's the guy who reads the 120-page contract line for line."
Fox also is somewhat of a pack rat: He keeps many papers dated several years ago and "if you saw his office, it looks like a paper grenade went off in there," Stolzman jokes.
But Fox knows where everything is and can reference years-old contracts verbatim, says Stolzman.
Fox was impressed by Stolzman's military and railroading background. His ascent from vice president to president enabled Fox to confidently step back from the day-to-day operations at PHL and, now as manging director,
focus instead on the short line's long-term growth, says Fox.
"I've really grown to appreciate [Mike's] outlook, integrity and work ethic, and his general sense of management," he says.
Now, as leader of CSS, Fox has spent his first few months on the job learning the intricacies of a 102-year-old railroad that operates
between Chicago and South Bend, Ind.
His main objectives: to continue improving the 127-mile short line's safety record, diversifying its traffic base, and ensuring CSS remains competitive with other railroads and trucking firms.
"I intend for CSS to be there when needed, [and] to do that requires a certain amount of redeployment of crews and motive power," says Fox.
Although the short line's traffic already is somewhat diversified, its carload base is concentrated in coal and steel. Those two commodities will
remain key, but to grow, the railroad needs to haul other cargo, such as scrap metal, chemicals, building materials and plastics, says Fox. The traffic base also could be expanded to include such items as refrigerated food products, he says.
CSS stands to benefit from a considerable amount of unoccupied land in northwest Indiana that could be used for industrial development, especially for companies seeking a presence in the area, says Fox. In addition, the short line retains land that could attract businesses along the railroad's line.
It is crucial to constantly take stock of which businesses are leaving the area and determine the needs of those companies that either are staying or relocating to the region, says Fox.
"It's our job to take maximum advantage of where we are," he says. "It is a matter of selling ourselves and the benefits of the area. That involves having your ear to the ground, being active in regional economic development and following up on every lead."
CSS was a well-run short line before his arrival and Fox expects it to remain that way. His role: building on the railroad's solid track record, Fox says.
More person-to-person and on-the-job lessons likely are in the offing to help him best determine how to fill that role. What's been a lifelong knowledge quest, then, figures to remain just that.
"I'm now in sponge mode where I'm learning everything I can about the railroad's operations and corporate relationships," says Fox. "I think I've come a long way in three months, and I'll obviously learn more."
Desiree J. Hanford is a Chicago-based free-lance writer.